This is part 12 of 15, presenting Frederic Bastiat's 1850 masterpiece The Law. Part 1 may be seen HERE and the entire book HERE.
The Law - 12
Frederic Bastiat - 1850
At what a tremendous height above the rest of mankind does Robespierre here place himself! And note the arrogance with which he speaks. He is not content to pray for a great reawakening of the human spirit. Nor does he expect such a result from a well-ordered government. No, he himself will remake mankind, and by means of terror.
This mass of rotten and contradictory statements is extracted from a discourse by Robespierre in which he aims to explain the principles of morality which ought to guide a revolutionary government. Note that Robespierre’s request for dictatorship is not made merely for the purpose of repelling a foreign invasion or putting down the opposing groups. Rather he wants a dictatorship in order that he may use terror to force upon the country his own principles of morality. He says that this act is only to be a temporary measure preceding a new constitution. But in reality, he desires nothing short of using terror to extinguish from France selfishness, honor, customs, manners, fashion, vanity, love of money, good companionship, intrigue, wit, sensuousness, and poverty. Not until he, Robespierre, shall have accomplished these miracles, as he so rightly calls them, will he permit the law to reign again.*
The Indirect Approach to Despotism
Usually, however, these gentlemen—the reformers, the legislators, and the writers on public affairs do not desire to impose direct despotism upon mankind. Oh no, they are too moderate and philanthropic for such direct action. Instead, they turn to the law for this despotism, this absolutism, this omnipotence. They desire only to make the laws.
To show the prevalence of this queer idea in France, I would need to copy not only the entire works of Mably, Raynal, Rousseau, and Fenelon—plus long extracts from Bossuet and Montesquieu—but also the entire proceedings of the Convention. I shall do no such thing; I merely refer the reader to them.
Napoleon Wanted Passive Mankind
It is, of course, not at all surprising that this same idea should have greatly appealed to Napoleon. He embraced it ardently and used it with vigor. Like a chemist, Napoleon considered all Europe to be material for his experiments. But, in due course, this material reacted against him.
At St. Helena, Napoleon—greatly disillusioned—seemed to recognize some initiative in mankind. Recognizing this, he became less hostile to liberty. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from leaving this lesson to his son in his will: “To govern is to increase and spread morality, education, and happiness.”
After all this, it is hardly necessary to quote the same opinions from Morelly, Babeuf, Owen, Saint-Simon, and Fourier. Here are, however, a few extracts from Louis Blanc’s book on the organization of labor: “In our plan, society receives its momentum from power.”
Now consider this: The impulse behind this momentum is to be supplied by the plan of Louis Blanc; his plan is to be forced upon society; the Society referred to is the human race. Thus the human race is to receive its momentum from Louis Blanc.
Now it will be said that the people are free to accept or to reject this plan. Admittedly, people are free to accept or to reject advice from whomever they wish. But this is not the way in which Mr. Louis Blanc understands the matter. He expects that his plan will be legalized, and thus forcibly imposed upon the people by the power of the law:
In our plan, the state has only to pass labor laws (nothing else?) by means of which industrial progress can and must proceed in complete liberty. The state merely places society on an incline (that is all?). Then society will slide down this incline by the mere force of things, and by the natural workings of the established mechanism.
But what is this incline that is indicated by Mr. Louis Blanc? Does it not lead to an abyss? (No, it leads to happiness.) If this is true, then why does not society go there of its own choice? (Because society does not know what it wants; it must be propelled.) What is to propel it? (Power.) And who is to supply the impulse for this power? (Why, the inventor of the machine— in this instance, Mr. Louis Blanc.)
The Vicious Circle of Socialism
We shall never escape from this circle: the idea of passive mankind, and the power of the law being used by a great man to propel the people.
Once on this incline, will society enjoy some liberty? (Certainly.) And what is liberty, Mr. Louis Blanc?
Once and for all, liberty is not only a mere granted right; it is also the power granted to a person to use and to develop his faculties under a reign of justice and under the protection of the law.
And this is no pointless distinction; its meaning is deep and its consequences are difficult to estimate. For once it is agreed that a person, to be truly free, must have the power to use and develop his faculties, then it follows that every person has a claim on society for such education as will permit him to develop himself. It also follows that every person has a claim on society for tools of production, without which human activity cannot be fully effective. Now by what action can society give to every person the necessary education and the necessary tools of production, if not by the action of the state?
Thus, again, liberty is power. Of what does this power consist? (Of being educated and of being given the tools of production.) Who is to give the education and the tools of production? (Society, which owes them to everyone.) By what action is society to give tools of production to those who do not own them? (Why, by the action of the state.) And from whom will the state take them?
Let the reader answer that question. Let him also notice the direction in which this is taking us.
NEXT: THE LAW - 13